Have needle, will travel: Frau Fiber is out to change the world, stitch by stitch

Performance artist/seamstress/activist/do-gooder Frau Fiber's message is rooted in old-school proletariat values; with that in mind, she focuses specifically on the undervalued garment worker, a workforce icon and punching bag of capitalistic society with a history of struggle against poor labor conditions and wages. She'll be leading a workshop tonight at MCA Denver; beforehand, we asked Frau Fiber's alter-ego and "spokeswoman" Carole Frances Lung-Bazile a few questions about the Frau's oeuvre and her MCA presentation. Westword: The Frau's work is rooted in the history of undervalued women workers, specifically textile workers. What inspired her to explore this subject? What is her objective, and how does she attain it? Carole Frances Lung-Bazile: Frau Fiber's first working experience was in a knitwear factory in Germany, south of Berlin. The company was a leader in knitwear production in Europe, producing mid-price goods sold all across Russia and the Eastern Bloc. When the wall fell, like employees at many other communist-run factories, she lost her job to outsourcing. After that, she pieced her life together by taking in mending and melding and altering work and teaching sewing in local schools. I met Frau Fiber in the Wiemar, and realized that we had very similar backgrounds. I manufactured couture wedding gowns, but was laid off when the work moved offshore in the perpetual search for cheaper labor. At least under the Communist regime, it was all about keeping people employed, with at least a roof over one's head. The Frau's objective is multi-layered -- it varies from project to project. First, Sewing Rebellion is about an act of generosity, while teaching people to sew and mend, in terms of re-purposing environmentalism. Through mending, clothing stays out of landfills and doesn't litter the world through consumption.

Secondly, through her KO Enterprises project, she is making garment labor transparent. People have no idea where and how garments are made. It's just like our food -- we buy it and consume it, but we have no idea where it comes from.

Finally, it is about creating garment jobs, as in the Made in Haiti project. (This project is basically an anti-industry fair-trade micro-business model, for which local textile workers mend and sew their own wares.)

WW: As I understand it, Frau Fiber's presentation at MCA will have something to do with the politics of mending. What does that mean? CFL: To Frau Fiber, mending as a political act is similar, environmentally speaking, to choosing to ride a bike or take public transportation. She was inspired after reading the chapter on economy in Henry David Thoreau's Walden and: "No man has ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his cloths; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience." And the thing with the mending is that she promotes ideas about making the mends more like embellishments, like decorative scarves not meant to be disguised or hidden in a new way of branding. Instead of a logo, you have a mend on your garment.

WW: What is the significance in bringing a group of women together to mend? CFL: When Frau Fiber was growing up in Eastern Germany, she and her friends came together to sew, and for them, it was also an excuse to talk politics under the auspices of a sewing circle. It was a way to do it and hide it from the authorities. But in this era, where we have social networking and often communicate our thoughts, there is a surreality to times when you actually come together physically. It forms a different kind of a connection -- you have to have manners and other old-fashioned notions. Also, Frau Fiber thinks it is important to mention that, while this is a feminist talk, many men do participate. It's also a contemporary version of feminism meant to be taken up by any gender.

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WW: What does she hope participants will gain from this workshop? CFL: Frau Fiber has a lot of humor in these things. Having lived through a severe political regime, she's learned to deal with it through humor and pleasure. You can go to Sewing Rebellion and sit around mending together and find pleasure in it. She would like to inspire people to keep mending and to form their own local Sewing Rebellion circles.

WW: Who will show up? Typically middle-class people who have leisure time, a certain class that tends to attend events, people who support the art center and not people who have a real need to mend, which is unfortunate. Frau Fiber is trying to figure out how to break into other avenues, but she hasn't quite worked that out yet.

WW: Does the frau think the current DIY/crafting trend is a response to some of the issues she brings up? Is it a good thing? Will it last? CFL: First off, how do you define DIY? It's really just another niche commodity. Yes, these are things made in the USA locally. Basically, it is small-skill manufacturing for profit.

Frau Fiber aligns herself more in acts of generosity and honoring history. Sewing Rebellion is typically free, and she likes to support other venues like it. You could call it Frau Fiber's personal community service: It's all connected to the economy and the things we have to do to support ourselves. But to the Frau, it's not really "do it yourself" when you sell a kit as a DIY object. Frau Fiber thinks that's a bit of a contradiction. She feels like it's been watered down: Anything that's a cottage industry gets lumped into DIY now. Years ago, she used to go to these stitch-and-bitch circles in Boulder, and now you see these stitch-and-bitch books everywhere. The Frau's work pushes against that. She makes fun of it, in a way. Right now she's working on an encyclopedia about sewing, and it's kind of a play on all these books.

And that brings up a whole discussion about DIY and what is is. She questions the way the term is used now. It is not what the first DIYers originally meant it to be. DIY is not about craft, to begin with; it's about punk-rock music. There really needs to be a new term.

WW: What can people expect from Frau Fiber at MCA? CFL: I guess you'll just see this stern, stocky woman who's going to teach them how to mend. Prepare to prick your fingers -- bring your own scissors, and bring your own garments to mend. This is action-based. It will not be a passive experience.

Frau Fiber is one of three guests at Craftivism, tonight's Feminism & Co. event at MCA Denver. Admission is $17 ($12 for members); call 303-298-7554 for information.

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